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All-too familiar catastrophic art

Lower garment and shoulder cloth depicting the tsunami of 2004

Lower garment and shoulder cloth depicting the tsunami of 2004, 2006-2007, by Mila Sungkar (Javanese, born 1960). Silk. Acquisition made possible by Mr. and Mrs. M. Glenn Vinson, Jr.

Seven years ago the museum acquired a remarkable textile from the Indonesian island of Java. Made by the artist Milla Sungkar, the cloth depicted her reaction to the devastating tsunami of 2004. After seeing images of the completely inundated province of Aceh in North Sumatra, and hearing about the more than 170,000 people killed by the tsunami, she expressed her grief in a batik textile depicting the catastrophe.

Lower garment and shoulder cloth depicting the tsunami of 2004

Lower garment and shoulder cloth depicting the tsunami of 2004, 2006-2007, by Mila Sungkar (Javanese, born 1960). Silk. Acquisition made possible by Mr. and Mrs. M. Glenn Vinson, Jr.

Nine years have passed since Aceh and neighboring regions in South and Southeast Asia were ravaged by that earthquake and tsunami. Yet images like the one depicted on this textile are still familiar. In the years since Aceh, we have seen the devastation from the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of 2011, and more recently, from typhoons in the Philippines. In November of 2013 Typhoon Haiyan (known as Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines) became the strongest cyclone ever to hit land in recorded history. Over 6000 people died in the Philippines alone, and thousands more were left injured and homeless.

As has become all too clear, global warming is a factor in the increased intensity and frequency of super storms. A few days after the typhoon, in a remarkable speech at the United Nations climate talks in Warsaw, the Philippine delegate Naderev Saño spoke for the people of his country and around the world urging global leaders to take substantive and meaningful action on global climate change. He spoke with tears streaming, still not knowing the fate of all of his own friends and relatives. Milla Sungkar conveyed her anguish through art; Naderev Saño through this speech.

Let us hope they are heard.

The ups and downs of love

Pair of ear ornaments, app. 1800–1900. Indonesia; Sumatra. Silver. Gift of the James and Elaine Connell Collection.

Pair of ear ornaments, app. 1800–1900. Indonesia; Sumatra. Silver. Gift of the James and Elaine Connell Collection.

How do you make sure your fiancé is serious? On many of the islands of eastern Indonesia, instead of exchanging engagement rings, men traditionally gave earrings to the women they wished to marry. These functioned as both a promise and a down payment on larger gift exchange at the time of the wedding. In much of Indonesia, a groom’s family’s gifts of metal objects (weapons, jewelry) were traditionally counterbalanced with the bride’s family’s gifts of textiles. Examples of jewelry used in these kinds of exchanges are now on view (until November 24, 2013) in the Southeast Asia galleries of the museum.

The shapes of the earrings in island Southeast Asia could often evoke fertility. In one example from the Indonesian island of Flores said to depict the womb of the ancestral mother. The split oval shape of the gold earrings from Tanimbar and Sumba are compared to the shape of female genitalia.

Enormous silver earrings from the island of Sumatra were worn through the upper lobe of a Karo Batak woman’s ear and then anchored to the cloth of her headdress. With a weight of over a pound each, these heavy earrings are worn with one spiral end facing the front of the face and the other facing the rear. Ethnologists report that one local explanation of this style was that they represented ups and downs of married life.

Becoming Durga

Durga killing the buffalo demon

The Hindu deity Durga killing the buffalo demon, 900-1000. India. Granite. The Avery Brundage Collection.

A recent article in the New York Times about the most publicized of India’s rape victims described women of New Delhi taking to the streets to commemorate and mourn the 23-year-old student who died last week. One participant, a 44-year-old mother of two teenage girls pronounced, “We can only tackle this by becoming Durga.” Durga is a fierce warrior form of the divine mother goddess. She is worshiped in India, the Himalayas and Hindu communities throughout the world. Shown here she holds the weapons given to her by many of the the male Hindu gods. The Devi Mahatmya story describes Durga’s defeat of a buffalo demon that terrorized the world, and whom the male gods could not kill. With news headlines blaring horrifying stories, at times it is hard to get past our own unspeakable sorrow and impotent rage. In dark days it is a small token of hope that we may some day transform our outrage into political action and collectively rise up and become Durga, putting an end to the vicious cycles of violence around us.